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Wrangling email: How I keep my inbox under control

Brett Terpstra | April 10, 2013
Though specialists have devised myriad systems that purport to achieve Inbox Zero. I'm not that ambitious. I just want a system that keeps the number of unread messages in my inbox as small as possible, doesn't treat my inbox as a to-do list, and doesn't require me to spend hours sorting and archiving my mail.

I also use a service called SaneBox to automate much of the process. SaneBox is an intelligent system of filters that works with Google and other IMAP services and learns by observing how I deal with my email. It automatically shunts messages that it deems unimportant to me from my inbox to other folders, starting with one named @SaneLater. Messages in this folder remain unread but available for me to deal with later. SaneBox also does a smart job of moving bulk and mailing list email messages out of the way.

When an email message passes through my filters and shows up unread in my inbox, I deal with it manually. I use Smart Folders (in Mail) and Quick Searches (in GMail) to help with this part of the process. One of the primary folders is a smart one called @INBOX: Notifications and badges on my desktop and laptop focus on this folder instead of on my primary Inbox.

That @INBOX folder shows me only unread messages, messages that I've placed in a temporary Review folder; and messages that I've flagged. Because @INBOX is intelligent, messages disappear from it when I've read been read and handled them.

A second major Smart Folder folder in my email system is called @LATER. It contains unread messages that got automatically filtered to mailboxes or folders outside my regular Inbox. I can deal with these messages when I have time, but they don't clog my standard workflow.

I've made these two folders the first two items in the bookmark bar of Mail--@INBOX first, and @LATER second--so I can access them with a simple keystroke combination (1 for @INBOX, and 2 for @LATER).

To make this system work with GMail, I use a Google Labs tool called Quick Links to re-create the same Smart Folder criteria that I employ in GMail searches. To access them in GMail, I use the standard shortcut g,l (go to label) and then type @in or @la.

I keep one additional folder, called Review, in my IMAP setup. If an email message requires special attention, it gets moved to this folder. On my Mac, the Review folder appears in my Smart Folders and Quick Links, and its contents show up in @INBOX whether I've read them or not. When I'm on a mobile device, I simply check this folder directly.


I read lots of email while I'm on the go, but I do most of my message processing on my home base's Mac. But while I'm mobile, I use a few tricks to make the subsequent processing easier.

The first of these tricks involves that Review folder I mentioned. If I read a message that I know requires more action than a simple reply or deletion, I move it into the Review folder from whatever mobile device I'm using. As a result, it automatically shows up in my @INBOX back home. Alternatively, I can mark a message as unread (or simply not read it) to leave it in my @INBOX for further processing.


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